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Tim Hagans: Subversive Jazz in Houston

Blaine Fallis By

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Any art form that poses questions, creates suspense and defies the status quo can be termed subversive.
Tim Hagans, Subversive Jazz
DiverseWorks Theater
Houston, Texas
August 10, 2008

What would you expect when going to hear trumpeter Tim Hagans heading up a jazz show called Subversive Jazz, at DiverseWorks Theater in Houston Texas? Perhaps a free-flowing trumpet intro, followed by gongs and trap set? Sure. But when saxophonist Seth Paynter entered playing a Korean Tae Pyong So (or Nal Ra Ri, a copper-made trumpet attached to a wooden tube), while shooting off a cap gun, I began to take notice. Having lived in Korea myself, I recognized that sound (sans gun), but didn't expect to hear it in a jazz band. Nor did I expect to hear drummer Richard Cholakian ripping a drill saw into a plastic cup for the sound effect. And when bassist Thomas Helton made his introduction playing bowed bass notes very long... and very low, followed by the pulling of his strings until they almost came off of his bass, I knew we were in for a ride down into the nether regions of creative music.

Houston seems an appropriate place to launch this "subversive" concept, in that it is far enough off of the radar from the major jazz centers of this country, and is below them all in both reputation, and latitude. Despite being the 4th largest city in the USA, it's not even considered the #1 jazz town in Texas by many, thanks to the flow of so many good players from the famed University of North Texas into Dallas and Austin.

But Houston-based players like saxophonist Woody Witt are shaking things up a bit. His Masters from UNT led him to eventually settle in Houston, where he earned his Ph.D. at the U of H. With the international release of his second CD, Square Peg, Round Hole (Apria Records, 2005), he saw his reputation fast becoming more global than local, playing with the likes of Randy Brecker, David Kikoski, Adam Nussbaum, James Moody, and yes, Tim Hagans. (Witt has since released three more fine recordings, most recently 2008's Willows, also on Apria Records.) Through Witt, Hagans met the players who make up this new band of subversives, and he's now a very active part of the Houston jazz scene, when he's not in Sweden leading the Norrbotten Big Band, or in New York performing shows.

Local organizations such as Nameless Sound, DiverseWorks, and the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble are stimulating the Houston jazz scene by hosting concerts and bringing in modern musicians such as William Parker, Ned Rothenberg, Pauline Oliveros and Tatsuya Nakatani to perform and educate.

The Subversive Jazz show hit its first real groove on song #4, "Garage Bands," featuring a 4/4 shuffle and a very hard-driving Helton bass line, complete with ripping strings, and pounding. Hagans remarked that "whether we started in the attic, or the trunk of a very large car; spiritually we all started in the garage." After Hagan's tribute to the Blues, "Space Dozen," Woody Witt made his entrance halfway through "No Tonic by Barlight," which featured Cholakian burning up the drums. In this band, Hagans pushes the players to go further than they may even want to go, perhaps in hopes of hearing some new sounds, or revealing new facets of personality that can only come out under pressure. The results were exciting.

"First Jazz" explored what Hagans referred to as "the energy I felt when I first heard jazz, although Herb Alpert didn't sound anything like this." On the 9/4 tune "Don't Get Me Started," they couldn't stop the drummer! And the evening ended with exits almost as unusual as the entrances.

I had the chance to share some Vietnamese food with the band at Mai's after the show, where I learned about sake bombs, and the proper use of expletives. But what I also learned is that Hagan's new band is made up of some pretty amazing musicians. Paynter taught ESL in Korea for the express purpose of learning Korean traditional music, and has a huge collection of gongs, many of which were on stage that evening. Helton showed why he is truly one of the most skilled upright players to ever pick up the instrument, which he manhandles by the way. And we enjoyed discussing the many facial expressions of Richard Cholakian, who goes so deep into a groove he is beyond being intimidated. He lets the music flow.

Tim Hagans is a trumpet player who is without a doubt one of the gems of the whole art form. His recordings on Blue Note and Pirouet are the definition of modern jazz, and his recent Norrbotten Big Band outing Worth the Wait (Fuzzy Music, 2008) featuring Peter Erskine sparkles, but it's good to hear him pushing the envelope and trying out new music and new players. It was an evening to remember!

Personnel: Tim Hagans: trumpet; Seth Paynter: Saxophone; Thomas Helton: bass; Richard Cholakian: percussion; with guest appearance by Woody Witt: saxophone.


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